Kyle Hendricks hasn't turned the corner yet: 'It's very unfamiliar from the dugout watching it out there'

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USA TODAY

Kyle Hendricks hasn't turned the corner yet: 'It's very unfamiliar from the dugout watching it out there'

Kyle Hendricks only gave up three runs Tuesday. The Cubs beat the visiting Detroit Tigers. All the fans at the Friendly Confines had something to sing about.

But while the calendar has turned away from Hendricks’ awful June, he hasn’t turned the corner quite yet.

Hendricks lasted only five innings Tuesday, the fifth time in his last seven starts he’s failed to reach the sixth inning, and once again put his team behind early on. He allowed two runs in the first inning to balloon his first-inning ERA out to 8.47 on the season.

While Tuesday could be considered a step in the right direction from a results perspective — it wasn’t the six-run disaster he had in his previous outing against the Los Angeles Dodgers — he’s still not reminding many onlookers of the Hendricks of old: the 2016 ERA champ, the guy who posted a combined 2.51 ERA in the past two seasons.

One of the onlookers who can’t recognize this Hendricks: Joe Maddon.

“It was not typical surgical-like procedure from Kyle,” the Cubs skipper said after Tuesday’s game. “He’s fine, his arm’s well, it’s great, he looks good. It’s just not executing. And with him, it’s happened before, we’ll figure it out.

“Part of it is the lack of execution right now. It’s very unfamiliar from the dugout watching it out there.”

Hendricks’ summer struggles have been just one of the things to go haywire with what was supposed to be one of the best starting rotations in baseball. That distinction could certainly still play out by the time the games really start counting and the pennant chases kick into high gear, but to this point only Jon Lester has lived up to preseason expectations placed on the starting staff.

Hendricks owns a 4.27 ERA after Tuesday’s outing. Jose Quintana is at 4.31. Tyler Chatwood is at 4.54. And the still-injured Yu Darvish has been Cubs fans’ biggest concern of the season with his 4.95 ERA.

Things really started going bad for Hendricks at the start of last month, and he wrapped the 30-day stretch with a 1-4 record and a 7.03 ERA in five June starts. There was no gaudy damage on the scoreboard Tuesday and the Cubs’ offense was able to pick Hendricks up, but he was lifted after throwing only 78 pitches and still saw his ERA increase.

“The way we’ve been swinging it, just try to minimize as much as I can,” Hendricks said. “Letting the leadoff guys get on, getting behind guys and missing spots, that’s a bad recipe for me right now. Just got to stick with it, keep battling and find something.

“Just take the good pitches I did make and that good feeling and try and translate that to my bullpen. I’ve just got to get the good habits going rep after rep. It’s just one bad, one good. The repeatability, right now. So just really focus on the good ones I’m making and try to lock that into my side sessions.

“When you make bad pitches, you’re going to get hurt.”

Hendricks actually didn’t lament his first-inning woes too much Tuesday, saying he made just one bad pitch despite three of the first four Tigers hitters reaching base and scoring two runs out of the deal.

Maddon, though, thinks there’s something to Hendricks’ first-inning troubles. After all, in every inning he’s thrown this season that hasn’t been the game’s first, he’s got a 3.38 ERA.

“With him, it’s hard to fault anything that he does. I would bet it’s just a confidence issue, more just trusting yourself,” Maddon said. “He knows that, he knows exactly what you’re talking about (the first-inning numbers), so he’s walking out there with that in his back pocket thinking about it. We’ve just got to get him by that for a couple outings and that’ll get him back to normalcy.

“I’m certain he’s aware of what you’re talking about, and that’s probably the reason why he’s still doing it.”

How long it takes Hendricks to get back to being the guy Cubs fans are used to watching remains to be seen. It’s become the story of the season, the starting staff’s struggles, and what happens with Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Darvish over the season’s next three months will determine how realistic another World Series run is for this team.

But even with four-fifths of the Opening Day rotation riding a season-long roller coaster, the Cubs remain one of the National League’s best squads, neck and neck with the Milwaukee Brewers at the top of the NL Central standings.

“That just shows, all the other aspects, how good they’ve been,” Hendricks said. “The bullpen, obviously, and the lineup, the runs we’re scoring. And how good Lester’s been doing. We’ve had one guy that’s been carrying it, and the rest of us have just been up and down.

“A little bit surprising in a way, maybe, but as good as all those other parts have been, I think once we can get rolling, that shows how good we can be.”

What we learned about the Cubs in June

What we learned about the Cubs in June

The summer heat has finally descended upon Chicago, but the good news for the Cubs is it appears their bats have rolled in along with the humidity.

The Cubs endured a brutal schedule in June, having to play 28 games in 30 days, including a doubleheader on the 19th. 

Sure, there was that 4-game losing streak in Cincinnati, but they also went 4-3 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and finished the month 16-12 overall.

That final record looks a whole lot better thanks to a 3-game winning streak to close out the month in which the Cubs hammered out 35 runs on 47 hits.

Here are 10 things we learned about the Cubs in June:

1. The Cubs offense is making its march toward October.

That's not to say they're ready for postseason baseball just yet.

But the Cubs hitters are willing students and they've clearly taken the lessons to heart lately.

Hitting coach Chili Davis called a team meeting in LA before the game on the 26th, in an effort to regroup with an offensive focus on using the whole field/going the other way, cutting down on strikeouts and not trying to force home runs.

The result was 4 wins in 5 games to close June, in which the Cubs scored at least 5 runs in every contest. That continued into July, plating 11 runs against the Twins Sunday at Wrigley Field.

It's not always going to be this easy, of course. The Cubs aren't going to average more than 9 runs a game forever.

But after seeing how the offense faltered in the postseason last year and paying close attention to how the game has shifted (strikeouts up, hits down), the Cubs coaches have been thinking about October since Day 1 of spring training with an emphasis on scoring runs against elite pitching without hitting homers.

Right now, we're seeing clear development from the young hitters in that regard.

2. Jon Lester is the Pitcher that was Promised.

In Year 4 of his $155 million megadeal, Lester is still getting it done in a major way and right when the Cubs needed it the most.

With Yu Darvish out for the entire month, Kyle Hendricks enduring uncharacteristic struggles and Tyler Chatwood still trying to right the ship, Lester was every bit an ace for the Cubs in June.

He won all 5 of his starts with a 1.13 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and averaged more than 6 innings per outing to help ease the burden on the bullpen.

Lester's strikeout rate is at its lowest mark since 2008 (the year he became a full-time starter) and he's given up some hard contact as his velocity has dropped off a bit, but he's found a way to do more with less and just keeps taking the ball every fifth day to give his team a chance to win.

3. Kris Bryant is not OK...
 
...but it's probably gonna be OK.

June 2018 will go down as the worst month of Bryant's career to date. 

He endured a long slump that saw him hit just 1 HR, drive in 9 runs and post a .707 OPS in 18 games in June. He also hit the disabled list for the first time ever with a left shoulder injury.

Bryant denies the shoulder may have had an impact on his power, but Joe Maddon is insistent the 10-day reprieve will do wonders for the 2016 NL MVP.

Bryant has been taking swings in the cage and is eligible to come off the disabled list Tuesday at Wrigley Field. At the very least, he should be fresh and either 100 percent physically or awfully close. That's a dangerous thing to add to a lineup that's currently firing on all cylinders.
 
4. Kyle Hendricks is not OK...
 
...but it's probably gonna be OK.
 
Like Bryant, June 2018 was probably Hendricks' worst month in a Cubs uniform at any level. He went 1-4 with a 7.03 ERA and 1.69 WHIP, allowing 19 earned runs on 26 hits and a whopping 15 walks in 24.1 innings — all numbers we're not used to seeing associated with The Professor.
 
He's giving up home runs at an alarming rate (he's already surrendered 16 and his career high is 17), but insists he's healthy.
 
This is the guy who pitched the Cubs to the World Series in 2016, dominating the Dodgers in the NLCS. And the same guy who started Game 7 against the Indians. And Game 1 against the Nationals in last year's NLDS.
 
Hendricks is one of the most cerebral pitchers in the game and is an avid student of pitching and the Cubs' scouting reports.
 
If he truly is healthy, then chances are extremely strong that he'll figure this all out and get through this bump in the road.
 
5. Javy Baez is a legitimate MVP candidate.
 
Baez hit .318 with a .915 OPS in June, finishing 1st or 2nd on the Cubs in almost every offensive category. He also became a father for the first time. Heck, he even drew 5 walks in June!

When the best players in baseball head to our nation's capital for the All-Star festivities in two weeks, Baez should be front and center (yes, he should be in the Home Run Derby).

He's on pace for a near 30-30 season, 121 RBI, 105 runs scored and a whopping 84 extra-base hits while playing spectacular defense all over the infield and hitting anywhere in the Cubs lineup.

With half the season in the books, Baez is firmly in the NL MVP conversation.
 
6. Yu who?
 
Darvish hasn't pitched all month...unless you count a rehab stint in Class-A South Bend.

The 31-year-old pitcher received a cortisone shot in his right elbow Friday to address the impingement/inflammation and could resume throwing this week.

But he'd have to build his arm strength and stamina back up, so he probably won't be able to return to the Cubs rotation before the All-Star Break.

Through June, he had only accounted for 40 innings and a 0.2 WAR (FanGraphs) in a Cubs uniform.
 
7. Mike Montgomery talked the talk, now he's walking the walk.
 
Montgomery made waves multiple times since the end of last season as he continued to be outspoken on his desire to be a starting pitcher.

When finally called upon for the opportunity, Montgomery has been absolutely phenomenal. He accounted for more innings (35) in June than any other Cubs pitcher, sporting a 2.83 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 2-1 record. 

Maybe more importantly, Montgomery has gone at least 5 innings in every start, including a string of 5 straight outings where he completed 6 innings

Whenever Darvish returns to the rotation, there's no way Montgomery is going back to the bullpen if he can keep getting these results.
 
8. The Cubs have depth, and they've needed every bit of it.

The Cubs filled up the DL in June. They began the month with Darvish, Carl Edwards Jr. and Eddie Butler on the shelf and then added Bryant and Brandon Morrow, Rob Zastryzny and Justin Hancock. Reliever Brian Duensing also hit the DL after the Cubs' win over the Twins on June 30.

Then there's the paternity leave, with Chatwood missing a start because of the birth of his first child and Baez out of the starting lineup for one game (Friday) for the same reason.

The Cubs built up their depth in every facet of the game over the winter and they've needed every bit of this summer already.

The shuttle of "Iowa relievers" was in full force and was met with mostly good results from Anthony Bass (0.73 ERA), Randy Rosario (2.45 ERA), Luke Farrell (3.95), Cory Mazzoni (1.50) and even Duane Underwood Jr., who pitched well in a spot start in LA.

The Cubs have also needed to lean heavily on their position player depth both with Bryant on the DL and a stretch of 17 games in 17 days to end the month. Maddon has been diligent about getting all his players rest and it's worked out beautifully to this point.

9. It would be silly to trade Addison Russell.

2018 hasn't gone exactly like Russell or the Cubs have planned, but he had a really good month of June while side-stepping trade rumors and a lingering finger issue on his left hand.

Russell hit .329 in June (2nd on Cubs) with an .867 OPS (4th on Cubs). He even flashed his formerly-lost power with a pair of homers in the final few games of the month.

On the season, he's hitting .286 with a .358 on-base percentage and .407 slugging percentage while playing Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop.

10. THIS is the Jason Heyward we've been waiting for.

When the Cubs handed Heyward an 8-year, $184 million contract before the 2016 season, they thought they were getting a Gold Glove defender, clubhouse leader and solid hitter with room to grow as he entered his prime.

Instead, he struggled at the plate in the first 2+ years in a Cubs uniform before June came along. 

He finished the month second on the team in OPS (.873) and RBI (16) while leading the Cubs in hits (34). Since May 29, only Paul Goldschmidt (.360) had a better batting average in the NL than Heyward (.359).

Heyward and the Cubs are confident the changes are built to last, too, now that he's gotten his hands a lot more involved in his swing and is able to drive the ball and catch up to elite velocity.

He's still the leader in the clubhouse and a fantastic defender and now that he's hitting consistently, Heyward has emerged as one of the most valuable players on the team.

Glanville: What we lose when playing the percentages

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AP

Glanville: What we lose when playing the percentages

After a spectacular outing in his last start, Kyle Hendricks is on the mound again tonight against the rival Cardinals. Although bitten more often than usual by the homerun this year, last time out, he recovered quickly after a first inning leadoff homerun by Josh Harrison of the Pirates. The result of this recovery was a line score of 5 IP 3 H 1 ER 2 BB 4Ks.

He gave up two hits over five innings after the homerun. No runs.

But as the National League has it, Hendricks was due to hit in the bottom of the fifth inning when the Cubs had two runners on base, and manager Joe Maddon seeing the cavalcade of lefties coming up for the Pirates in the 6th, elected to pinch hit for the right-handed pitching Hendricks. He reasonably explained the elements at play, considering offense and defense in his decision.

It did not work out for the Cubs as the numbers would have suggested. The lefty-lefty matchup of Duensing v. Pirates imploded in the sixth inning. Four runs later, the Cubs were in a deep hole. Baseball happened.

We know hindsight is crystal clear. Yet we want to be able to look to the future, and apply that hindsight effectively. There will be many moments tonight when Maddon will have to weigh key factors to decide Hendricks’ fate for the good of the team.

Today, the numbers are king in baseball’s chess game. There are many other pieces on the board, but as the information pours in that allow us to make more informed decisions, we cannot ignore it. Similar to instant replay, once the technology was there, available to all of us, we had to use it in a way that enhances the game and our chances to get the call right. We could no longer pretend millions of fans did not have cell phones to see the right call with their own eyes (or could see on the big screen), just as we cannot deny our ability to know the difference between high and low percentage moments in a baseball game with all of the information at our disposal. We have data out to many decimal places now on just about everything.

Hendricks supported Maddon’s choice to pinch hit for him. He did not provide juicy controversial quotes or play into the false bravado of “you need to rip the ball out of my hand every game” storyline. Even if he wanted the chance to continue the roll he was on over the five innings after that leadoff homerun, which I am sure he did. Today, players are armed with information which often explains any decision. In theory, it makes it not personal.

We ask ourselves all of the time how the numbers and the soul of the game will dance together. If one will be the enemy of the other or will work together in some sort of artistic truce. They will always be at odds in some way given new metrics are coming in every year. We re-think our outfield routes, our use of bullpen, the role of a starter, the value of a stolen base. It is all about finding higher percentages of success or “playing the percentages.”

Yet if someone is telling us that the chance of rain is 55 percent, is that really telling us anything on a practical level? I suppose it is good to know it may rain even on a coin flip, but it is hardly a certainty. What do we make of 45 percent odds on weather to pack an umbrella? The challenge is there are many other pieces of information in baseball that collide with each other in this near 50/50 way. Almost as if you have four weather seasons in every game. It could rain, snow, hail, be 95 degrees, flood, or we could have unbearable wind.

If they were all at different low percentage chances and even overlap, do you carry sunscreen and snow boots? At some point the more hedges, the more you have to protect against (and carry a suitcase of defenses) or you may not bother leaving home at all. Do you take out Hendricks and hit LaStella and bring in Giminez and give Morrow an extra day’s rest and ask Strop to pitch three days in a row? All of these decisions and more, impact each other at some point.

The percentages we play in baseball are based on knowledge that looks both forward and backwards at the patterns and matchups. We use it to make a decision. The old school gut is slowly getting quantified away, so we can use our head much more often and let our gut toss and turn without any real power.

Yet, playing those higher percentages is what is best for the team, what is best for the team’s odds at a given moment. It tends to ignore the idea that a player overcoming a low percentage situation is often what propels him to that next tier of confidence, allows him to build on it, individually. We all remember when we overcame the odds, a time that induced greatness when we may not have known it was in us. So we pitched that extra inning with our arm hanging, we faced that righty nemesis that gave us fits and (spoiler alert) hit that triple, we stole that base we had no business stealing and ended Red Sox futility, we returned as a backup catcher and hit a homerun off of Andrew Miller in the World Series, and we changed everything because no one saw it coming. No one “predicted” it.

When as a Cub, I faced Braden Looper of the Marlins in Game 3 of the NLCS in 2003, I had faced him before as a Phillie. There was nothing about him that would suggest I should have any success against him. He was a sinkerball pitcher, which usually meant I would swing over the ball, or foul one off of my shin. But it was extra innings, our bench was thin, and even though I had not started a game in weeks, I was granted this low percentage opportunity.

I was 1-for-9, with one strikeout against Looper going into the at bat before I hit that triple and I assure you, many of those nine at bats were not pretty. I was not supposed to get a hit let alone an extra-base hit.

Sure, let’s use the information at hand, dig deeper in the game and the numbers that we love about it. It helps us weigh the odds more precisely. Baseball fans love to count. We love to add and subtract. But we also like to remember when David beat Goliath, and before we reduce every moment into Calculus 101, let’s also remember that everyone in the big leagues is a low percentage anomaly. They climbed nearly impossible mountains to be a major league baseball player. To get to where they are, it took walking outside without an umbrella nor a raincoat on a day when it had a 95 percent chance of rain. Maybe that day it still did not rain, or maybe it did and you just decided to dance anyway.